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Navajos: Old uranium tailings leave land radioactive, people sick

Published October 24, 2007 12:58 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

WASHINGTON - The Navajo Nation representative waved an instrument over the small pile of dirt. Beep, beep, beep it went, in a radioactive crescendo.

The bit of soil - shipped from the Four Corners region to the Capitol - underscored Stephen Etsitty's point: This was only a minuscule sample of the tailings left behind from decades of uranium mining.

Much larger pieces, he said, can be found in the homes of American Indians, in watering holes for grazing animals, even pressed into a public highway.

"The sounds that you have heard come from an instrument called a Ludlum 19 and show that Navajo families are living within a few hundred yards of materials that we're told we shouldn't be exposed to for longer than an hour," said Etsitty, executive director of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency.

Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee stared at the small tub of dirt, which was then sealed off and escorted out of the building by Capitol Police.

The demonstration on Tuesday came during testimony on the problems faced by those living in the Navajo Nation - 27,000 square miles across Arizona, Utah and New Mexico - where more than 500 former uranium mines were abandoned after the rush to find nuclear material during the 1940s to the 1970s.

Representatives of the Navajo Nation say the U.S. government has not done enough to clean up the aftermath of the uranium mining, an effort that one committee member said could cost more than $500 million.

Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., declared at the start of the hearing that it is the federal government's responsibility to see that the contamination is cleaned up. And he decried the lack of work on restoring the land on the Navajo reservation.

"If a fraction of the deadly contamination the Navajos live with every day had been in Beverly Hills or any wealthy community, it would have been cleaned up immediately," Waxman said. "But there's a different standard applied to the Navajo land."

Ray Manygoats lives near Tuba City, Ariz., where a uranium mill sprang up during the Cold War, and he says radioactive waste is still strewn all over the area.

"Our land today is poisoned," Manygoats said. "Today, I am a man who has lost his health, his family and his ancestral way of life because of uranium. I am here today to ask you to act to stop the suffering and needless deaths of my people."

Etsitty, who says the presence of hazardous waste violates America's treaty with the Navajos, noted that the federal government is planning to reclaim a tailings site near Moab just outside the Navajo Nation.

"Why is this not happening on the Navajo reservation," he said. "Are we seeing environmental injustice in action once again?"

Because of the health and environmental problems that have plagued tribal members since the last boom, the Navajo Nation has passed a resolution prohibiting new uranium mining on the reservation.

In 2001, the EPA razed Mary Holiday's hogan in Monument Valley because of gamma radiation readings 25 times higher than the level considered safe and radon 44 times above the "safe" level. Exposure to high radiation sometimes causes lung cancer, the disease that killed Holiday's nephew, Leonard Begay, a non-smoker who had lived in the hogan for many years. He died in 2003 at age 38.

Wayne Nastri, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency region that covers the Navajo Nation, said there have been efforts made to reclaim some of the now-contaminated land. The agency has built an inventory of 520 abandoned mines and the Navajo government is now helping to prioritize the sites for cleanup, Nastri said.

"The challenge posed by uranium mine sites in the Navajo Nation will need to be addressed through federal, state and tribal efforts," Nastri said, adding that the agency provides $3.9 million annually to the Navajo government and that during the last 16 years it has spent $7.8 million specifically for a superfund program.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Department of Interior also is helping the Navajos reclaim the land, its director, Jerry Gidner, testified. His agency is providing assistance to the tribal government to address the hazards at the mines and also helping to seal some mine openings and remove physical hazards at others.

Waxman, who plans more hearings on the subject, called for a comprehensive study of the health risks posed by the tailings and suggested the EPA conduct detailed site assessments at the priority mine sites right away. Once that's done, he added, the cleanups need be "initiated and accelerated."

tburr@sltrib.com

The key issues

* The Navajo Nation says the federal government is dragging its feet on cleaning up radioactive tailings.

* The federal EPA says it needs cooperation from state and tribal leaders.